COVID-19 and the Precarity of South Korean Working Class

Coupang is a Korean e-commerce platform. I used to joke that Coupang is an Amazon wannabe. This time it did follow Amazon’s footsteps. One of Coupang’s warehouses had an COVID-19 outbreak with 63 confirmed cases and counting, just like Amazon had an outbreak at their fulfillment center.

They did not follow the infection prevention guidelines. They hid the outbreak to keep people working in close vicinity. They eventually closed the warehouse two days later, but the damage was already done.

Coupang distinguished itself from other e-commerce platforms by offering free next-day delivery, called “Rocket Shipping.” They claimed they are ensuring better environment for delivery workers by hiring them directly rather than outsourcing, but whether that was enough to protect workers is questionable. A delivery worker died while working back in March.

COVID-19 increased the demand for online shopping significantly. South Korea didn’t see any panic buying at brick and mortar stores, and many attribute that to the exceptional availability of online shopping. Why go to the supermarket and lug all that stuff home, when you can make some taps on an app and have things at your front door the next morning? And many people who lost their income because of COVID-19 had turned to these logistics jobs to make ends meet.

Before this warehouse outbreak, another workplace hotbed for COVID-19 were call centers. Lots of people were crammed into enclosed spaces, and because they had to talk on the phone, workers removed their masks to do their jobs. A lot of call centers are subcontractors, and the corporations that contract them do not take responsibility for the workplace safety while often demanding unreasonable output at the expense of the workers. This outsourcing of danger was pointed out many times by labor activists, but very little was done to actually address the issue. COVID-19 was no exception.

The infection prevention guideline says to take days off when you feel unwell, but that is easier said than done when you can’t afford to lose the pay. And in South Korea, there definitely is a pressure to show up to work when you’re sick. Especially when employers intentionally understaff to cut costs and the workers are already being overworked, your absence means even more workload for all of your colleagues. It is often said that the virus does not discriminate, but it is quite clear that economically precarious people are the most exposed to the virus.

The reactions to these workplace outbreaks also say something. When there was an outbreak at nightclubs, South Korean people were berating the clubbers for being irresponsible. And because some of the clubs had been gay spaces, social media and other online platforms saw more homophobic hate speech. But I don’t see such outrage regarding this outbreak. It’s good that the workers are not subjected to the hatred, because they are the victims. But why isn’t there more anger against the corporations’ irresponsibility?

Related: South Korea Has COVID-19 Under Control Despite Homophobia

In South Korea, corporations are rarely held accountable when workers are injured or even killed due to unsafe working conditions. And when they are held accountable, the punishments usually seem way too small compared to their wrongdoings. We have become numb to corporations getting away with fostering hazardous working environments to maximize profits.

South Korea has been praised for its exemplary COVID-19 response, but all of that effort will be a castle built on sand as long as corporate profit is prioritized over workers’ health.

By Jihyun Kim

Jihyun Kim is the founder of The Koreanist. She is an undergraduate student at Konkuk University.

Leave a Reply

Related Posts